- Michael Woods, Boxing
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Joe Frazier, as relentless a pugilist as you'll ever see, died a bit before 9 p.m. ET Monday. As was his way, he didn't quit; liver cancer took him out. He died at his home in Philadelphia, age 67.
Born in 1944, Frazier won a gold medal for the U.S. at the 1964 Olympic games, and held the world heavyweight championship for several years. But, truth be told, he had something of an inferiority complex, and toiled in the immense shadow of Muhammad Ali for much of his life.
He beat Ali at Madison Square Garden in March 1971, in "The Fight of the Century," or just "The Fight," yet still sat in the sidecar while Ali's awesome charisma and magnetism radiated and attracted attention. Fair? Maybe not, as Frazier was the man who -- with the most famous left hook in recorded history -- sent Ali, then 31-0, to the canvas in Round 15 of The Fight.
Frazier's hold on the WBC title was firm and true with the win over Ali, and he defended it twice, against Terry Daniels and Ron Stander. He then gave George Foreman a crack. In January 1973, Frazier hit the deck six times as Foreman punished him with his bolder fists, lifting him clear off his feet with uppercuts that threatened to make Frazier a man of NASA, to send him skyward. When Arthur Mercante halted the scrap at 2:26 of Round 2, typical Joe, he gave no signal, sent no telepathic message that he wanted to quit. He was ready to fight to the death.
When informed of Frazier's death, Foreman said to ESPN New York, "The one and only. The most consistent human I've ever known. Smoking Joe Frazier!"
Frazier and Ali got it on again, at Madison Square Garden, in January 1974. The buildup to this one got ugly, with Frazier losing it over Ali's taunts. He couldn't channel his seething fury into a victory, as Ali scored a UD.
Maybe Frazier's best days were in the rear view, but he told the fight world he was still relevant by beating Jerry Quarry and Jimmy Ellis, before signing on for another clash with Ali. It took place in October 1975, in Manilla, and it is perhaps sad to note that this fight, a loss, is Frazier's signature fight. But then again, maybe that's not such a bad thing, because he exemplified courage in the face of adversity, resilience and perseverance in abundance as he sought to convince trainer Eddie Futch to let him fight on after a thoroughly draining Round 14.
Futch pulled the plug, as Ali himself was telling trainer Angelo Dundee to cut his gloves off. Frazier probably never got over falling short on that occasion and he let bitterness seep into his soul. In a 2009 documentary looking at the Thrilla, Frazier betrays his animus, and implies heavily that Ali's physical decimation at the hands of Parkinson's came compliments of a vengeful God.
"Whatever you done when you a young man, it comes to bite you in the butt when you get older," he stated, then adding. "And said. God marks it down."
This is not attempt to tear the man down so soon after his passing, know that. Frazier's feelings toward Ali are not without merit, in my opinion. Frazier had taken a chance when he backed Ali during Ali's exile from the sport for refusing induction into the U.S. armed forces. His animosity toward Ali was part and parcel of his personality. His ire was his competitiveness in another form. When he was no longer able to make his body perform the way it needed to in the ring, his competitive nature didn't have the outlet it needed, and that ate away at him.
Eight months after Manilla, a heavier Frazier, head shaved to connote a menacing presence, succumbed again to Foreman. This time he hit the deck twice, and lasted to the fifth round, but the end wasn't near, it was here. He was 32. He'd need to be reminded that the body doesn't have infinite mileage when he tried a comeback in 1981. The eternal credit to his adopted hometown of Philadelphia met Jumbo Cummings in Illinois, and was gifted a draw. His final record stands at 32-4-1 with 27 KOs.
But wins and losses are besides the point when you ponder Frazier's legacy. His determination, his burning desire to go forward, to leave every ounce of what he had to give in the ring, placed him in the top 1 percent of any boxer, in any era. That is no small compliment. God no doubt will mark it down.
Rest in peace, Smokin' Joe. You deserve some.
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